The sequester in action
TEXAS is home to pickup trucks that weigh more than the titchy propeller-driven passenger planes that serve Victoria, a regional airport near the state’s Gulf coast. Just eight passengers fit into the Piper Navajos which hop to Houston four times daily. Subsidised as an “essential air service” by the government, the little planes offer the only scheduled passenger flights at the airport, a former military base built during the second world war.
Yet complaints have greeted the Federal Aviation Authority’s proposal to close Victoria’s air-traffic control tower, as one of 149 “contract” towers (federally funded, but staffed by private contractors) marked to lose FAA support under government spending cuts known as the sequester.
The area’s Republican member of Congress, Blake Farenthold, is a fan of smaller government. But he calls air-traffic control primarily a federal responsibility and says that the FAA has walked away at a terrible moment: just when Victoria is lobbying airlines to lay on a jet service to Dallas, to take advantage of a “huge economic boom” in Victoria because of shale oil-and-gas drilling and the 2012 opening of a plant making Caterpillar excavators.
Across the country, plans to close control towers are producing squawks from politicians, uniting Democrats fretful about safety and Republicans who accuse the Obama administration of targeting airfields to dramatise the sequester’s impact. Airports are glamorous public assets (and congressmen fly more than most folk). Tower closures would also be one of the most visible sequester effects to date—though on April 5th the White House did call the sequester “part of the equation” explaining worse-than-expected employment numbers, with just 88,000 new jobs created in March.
The economics are more complex. Victoria secured a tower only in 2008, after an FAA cost-benefit and safety analysis found that traffic levels justified one. Pilots can land without a tower using radios and their eyes, concedes Jason Milewski, the airport manager. Today’s limited Houston service could survive the loss of a tower. For Victoria, the tower is really about growth, both future and past: having one has allowed the airport to attract much more traffic, including fast corporate and military jets—and thus to sell an additional million dollars’ worth of fuel each year.
After a spate of legal challenges, the FAA is delaying contract-tower closures until June. About 50 airports have already signalled that they may try to go it alone after that. Victoria hopes to join them. Local officials and businesses are considering whether they could cover the roughly $500,000 a year to keep Victoria’s tower, once 90 days of interim funding from the state of Texas runs out. In short, supporters will have to prove that the airport really is valuable.
Mr Milewski can see some positives from such debates. There are overstaffed towers across America, he says, and more use should be made of contract towers, which cost far less than FAA-staffed equivalents. Currently the FAA keeps Victoria’s tower open at weekends when it is “very quiet”. If locals ran the tower, its hours would be cut back. For all the clumsiness of the sequester, it is imposing new rigours. Too many airports have been run as municipal amenities, or, worse, sinks for federal pork. In straitened times, perhaps more will be run as businesses.